There is a surprising amount of disagreement among sociologists on the number of social classes in the United States and even on how to measure social class membership. We first look at the measurement issue and then discuss the number and types of classes sociologists have delineated.
Measuring Social Class
We can measure social class either objectively or subjectively. If we choose the objective method, we classify people according to one or more criteria, such as their occupation, education, and/or income. The researcher is the one who decides which social class people are in based on where they stand in regard to these variables. If we choose the subjective method, we ask people what class they think they are in. For example, the General Social Survey asks, “If you were asked to use one of four names for your social class, which would you say you belong in: the lower class, the working class, the middle class, or the upper class?” Figure 7.3 “Subjective Social Class Membership” depicts responses to this question. The trouble with such a subjective measure is that some people say they are in a social class that differs from what objective criteria might indicate they are in. This problem leads most sociologists to favor objective measures of social class when they study stratification in American society.
Figure 7. 3 Subjective Social Class Membership
Source: Data from General Social Survey, 2016.
Yet even here there is disagreement between functionalist theorists and conflict theorists on which objective measures to use. Functionalist sociologists rely on measures of (SES), such as education, income, and occupation, to determine someone’s social class. Sometimes one of these three variables is used by itself to measure social class, and sometimes two or all three of the variables are combined to measure social class. When occupation is used, sociologists often rely on standard measures of occupational prestige. Since the late 1940s, national surveys have asked Americans to rate the prestige of dozens of occupations, and their ratings are averaged together to yield prestige scores for the occupations (Hodge, Siegel, & Rossi, 1964). Over the years these scores have been relatively stable. Here are some average prestige scores for various occupations: physician, 86; college professor, 74; elementary school teacher, 64; letter carrier, 47; garbage collector, 28; and janitor, 22.
Despite SES’s usefulness, conflict sociologists prefer different, though still objective, measures of social class that consider ownership of the means of production and other dynamics of the workplace. These measures are closer to what Marx meant by the concept of class throughout his work, and they consider the many types of occupations and workplace structures that he could not have envisioned when he was writing during the 19th century.
For example, corporations have many upper-level managers who do not own the means of production but still determine the activities of workers under them. They thus do not fit neatly into either of Marx’s two major classes, the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. Recognizing these problems, conflict sociologists delineate social class on the basis of several factors, including the ownership of the means of production, the degree of autonomy workers enjoy in their jobs, and whether they supervise other workers or are supervised themselves (Wright, 2000).
The American Class Structure
As should be evident, it is not easy to determine how many social classes exist in the United States. Over the decades, sociologists have outlined as many as six or seven social classes, but for the sake of clarity, we will limit ourselves to the four social classes included in Figure 7.3 “Subjective Social Class Membership”: the upper class, the middle class, the working class, and the lower class. Although subcategories exist within some of these broad categories, they still capture the most important differences in the American class structure (Gilbert, 2011). The annual income categories listed for each class are admittedly somewhat arbitrary but are based on the percentage of households above or below a specific income level.
Overall, in 2016 the median household income level was $59,039. The percentage of U.S. households found at different income levels are outlined below in Figure 7.4 “Distribution of U.S. Household Income, 2016.”
Figure 7.4 Distribution of U.S. Household Income, 2016
Source: Data from Semega, Jessica L., Fontenot, Kayla R. and Kollar, Melissa A. U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Reports, P60-259. Income and Poverty in the United States: 2016. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC. Data retrieved from https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2017/demo/P60-259.pdf
The Upper class
Depending on how it is defined, the consists of about 7% of the U.S. population and includes households with annual incomes of more than $200,000 (Semega, Fontenot & Kollar, 2016). Some scholars would raise the ante further by limiting the upper class to households with incomes of at least $500,000 or so, which in turn reduces this class to about 1% of the population, with an average wealth (income, stocks and bonds, and real estate) of several million dollars. However it is defined, the upper class has much wealth, power, and influence (Kerbo, 2009).
The upper class in the United States consists of about 4% of all households and possesses much wealth, power, and influence. Steven Martin – Highland Park Mansion CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Members of the upper-upper class have “old money” that has been in their families for generations. They belong to exclusive clubs and live in exclusive neighborhoods; have their names in the social register; send their children to expensive private schools; serve on the boards of museums, corporations and major charities; and exert much influence on the political process and other areas of life from behind the scenes. Members of the lower-upper class have “new” money acquired through hard work, lucky investments and/or athletic prowess. In many ways, their lives are similar to those of their old-money counterparts, but they do not enjoy the prestige that old money brings. Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon who in 2018 has a net worth of over $100 billion and is the richest person in the United States currently, would be considered a member of the lower-upper class because his money is too “new.” Because he does not have a long-standing pedigree, upper-upper class members might even be tempted to disparage his immense wealth, at least in private.
The Middle Class
Many of us like to think of ourselves in the , as Figure 7.3 “Subjective Social Class Membership” showed, and many of us are. The middle class includes the nearly 50% of all households whose annual incomes range from $50,000 to $199,999. As this very broad range suggests, the middle class includes people with many different levels of education and income and many different types of jobs. It is thus helpful to distinguish the upper-middle class from the lower-middle class on the upper and lower ends of this income bracket, respectively. The upper-middle class has household incomes from about $100,000 to $199,000, amounting to about 21% of all households. People in the upper-middle class typically have college and, very often, graduate or professional degrees; live in the suburbs or in fairly expensive urban areas; and are bankers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, corporate managers, and financial advisers, among other occupations.
The lower-middle class has household incomes from roughly $50,000 to $99,999, amounting to about 29% of all families. People in this income bracket typically work in white-collar jobs as nurses, teachers, and the like. Many have college degrees, usually from the less prestigious colleges, but many also have 2-year degrees or only a high school degree. They live somewhat comfortable lives but can hardly afford to go on expensive vacations or buy expensive cars and can send their children to expensive colleges only if they receive significant financial aid.
The Working Class
households have annual incomes between about $25,000 and $49,999 and constitute about 22% of all U.S. households. They generally work in blue-collar jobs such as factory work, construction, restaurant service, and less skilled clerical positions. People in the working class typically do not have 4-year college degrees, and some do not have high school degrees. Although most are not living in official poverty, their financial situation is very uncomfortable. A single large medical bill or expensive car repair would be almost impossible to pay without going into considerable debt.
Additionally, Working-class families are far less likely than their wealthier counterparts to own their own homes or to send their children to college. Many of them live at risk for unemployment as their companies downsize by laying off workers even in good times, and hundreds of thousands began to be laid off when the U.S. recession began in 2008.
The Lower Class
Many poor individuals lack high school degrees and are unemployed or employed only part time. Chris Hunkeler – Trailer Homes – CC BY-SA 2.0.
The have household incomes under $25,000 and constitute about 21% of all U.S. households. Many in the lower class lack high school degrees, and many are unemployed or employed only part time in semi skilled or unskilled jobs. When they do work, they work as janitors, house cleaners, migrant laborers, and shoe shiners. They tend to rent apartments rather than own their own homes, lack medical insurance, and have inadequate diets. We will discuss the lower class further when we focus later in this chapter on inequality and poverty in the United States.
Regardless of how we measure and define social class, one question that often arises is what are our chances of moving up or down within the American class structure? As we saw earlier, the degree of vertical social mobility is a key distinguishing feature of systems of stratification. Class systems such as in the United States are thought to be open, meaning that social mobility is relatively high, in comparison to closed systems of stratification. It is important, then, to determine how much social mobility exists in the United States.
Here we need to distinguish between two types of individual vertical social mobility. refers to mobility from one generation to the next within the same family. If children from poor parents end up in high-paying jobs, the children have experienced upward intergenerational mobility. Conversely, if children of doctors end up working as janitors, these children have experienced downward intergenerational mobility. refers to mobility within a person’s own lifetime. If you start out as an administrative assistant in a large corporation and end up as an upper-level manager, you have experienced upward intragenerational mobility. But if you start out from business school as an upper-level manager and get laid off 10 years later because of corporate downsizing, you have experienced downward intragenerational mobility.
A third type of mobility, , happens when societal changes enable a whole group of people to move up or down the social class ladder. Structural mobility is attributable to changes in society as a whole, not individual changes. In the first half of the twentieth century, industrialization expanded the U.S. economy, raising the standard of living and leading to upward structural mobility. In today’s work economy, the recent recession and the outsourcing of jobs overseas have contributed to high unemployment rates. Many people have experienced economic setbacks, creating a wave of downward structural mobility. (OpenStax, Sociology 2e, Attribution International (CC BY 4.0); download for free at http://email@example.com).
Sociologists have conducted a good deal of research on social mobility, much of it involving the movement of males up or down the occupational prestige ladder compared to their fathers, with the earliest studies beginning in the 1960s (Blau & Duncan, 1967; Featherman & Hauser, 1978). For better or worse, the focus on males occurred because the initial research occurred when many women were still excluded from the formal labor force and also because women back then were ignored in many studies in the social and biological sciences. The early research on males found that about half of sons end up in higher-prestige jobs than their fathers had but that the difference between the sons’ jobs and their fathers’ was relatively small, meaning that social mobility is typically incremental. This is in spite of the fact that the stories we tell about social mobility present social mobility occurring in giant leaps, from rags to riches. In reality, a child of a janitor may end up managing a hardware store but is very unlikely to end up as a corporate executive. To reach that lofty position, it helps greatly to have parents in jobs much more prestigious than a janitor’s. Contemporary research also finds much less mobility among African Americans and Latinos than among non-Latino whites with the same education and family backgrounds, suggesting an important negative impact of racial and ethnic discrimination.
A college education is a key step toward achieving upward social mobility. However, the payoff of education is often higher for men than for women and for whites than for people of color. Image by Mcelspeth from Pixabay
A key vehicle for upward mobility is formal education. Regardless of the socioeconomic status of our parents, we are much more likely to end up in a high-paying job if we attain a college degree or, increasingly, a graduate or professional degree. Figure 7.5 “Education and Median Weekly Earnings of All Worker, 25 Years and Older, 2016” vividly shows the difference that education makes for American’s incomes. Notice, however, that for every level of education, men’s incomes are greater than women’s, thus suggesting that the payoff of education is higher for men than for women, and many studies support this conclusion (Green & Ferber, 2008). The reasons for this gender difference are complex and will be discussed further in this text in the review of gender and gender inequality. To the extent vertical social mobility exists in the United States, then, it is higher for men than for women as well as being higher for whites than for people of color.
Figure 7.5 Education and Median Weekly Earnings of All Workers, 25 Years and Older, 2016
Source: Data from “Highlights of Women’s Earnings in 2016 : BLS Reports.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1 Aug. 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/womens-earnings/2016/home.htm
Certainly the United States has upward social mobility, even when we take into account gender and racial discrimination. Whether we conclude the United States has a lot of vertical mobility or just a little is the key question, and the answer to this question depends on how the data are interpreted. People can and do move up the socioeconomic ladder, but their movement is fairly limited. Hardly anyone starts at the bottom of the ladder and ends up at the top.
One way of understanding the issue of U.S. social mobility is to see how much parents’ education affects the education their children attain (education being strongly correlated with social class status). Research comparing first-generation students, whose parents did not attend college, with students whose parents have bachelor’s degrees shows differential outcomes based on parent educational level. In high school, students whose parent(s) have a bachelor’s degree are more likely to participate in an academically focused curriculum and are more likely to earn Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate credits (Cataldi, Bennett and Chen, 2018). Participation in academically rigorous courses in high school helps to prepare students for success in college. Table 7.3 “Parents’ Education and their Children’s Educational Outcomes” demonstrates the compounding factors associated with parental educational attainment.
Table 7.3 Parents’ Education and their Children’s Educational Outcomes
First Generation Students
Parent(s) Earned a Bachelor’s Degree
% who participated in academically focused high school curriculum
% who earned AP/IB Credits
% who enrolled in college
% who, after 3 years of college, left college without earning a degree
% who graduated from college in 4 years
Source: Cataldi, Emily Forrest, et al. “First-Generation Students: College Access, Persistence, and Postbachelor’s Outcomes.” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education, 8 Feb. 2018, nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2018421.
Early educational experiences, financial struggles and less social support from parents who have limited to no experience navigating the college system, result in first generation students attending college and graduating with bachelor’s degrees at lower levels. As demonstrated above, almost 20% fewer first generation students enroll in college, they leave college without a degree at more than twice the rate of their peers and 22% fewer graduate within four years of their initial college enrollment. Thus, our chances of going to college and completing a degree depends heavily on our parents’ education (and presumably their income and other aspects of our family backgrounds). While the American Dream does exist, it is much more likely to remain only a dream unless we come from advantaged backgrounds. In fact, there is less vertical mobility in the United States than in other Western democracies. As a recent analysis summarized the evidence, “There is considerably more mobility in most of the other developed economies of Europe and Scandinavia than in the United States” (Mishel, Bernstein, & Shierholz, 2009, p. 108).
Intragenerational Mobility – social mobility of an individual within their own lifetime.
Intergenerational Mobility – social mobility from one generation to the next within the same family.
Lower Class – the social group with the lowest socioeconomic status in society who are marginalized and deprived.
Middle Class – the social group positioned between the upper and working classes who typically work in white-collar occupations and who have a moderate standard of living.
Social Mobility – the movement of an individual or group up or down in position within a stratification system.
Socioeconomic Status – the social standing of an individual or family in relation to others based on measures such as education, income and/or occupation.
Structural Mobility – social mobility of a group of people up or down the social class ladder in response to changes within society.
Upper Class – the social group with the highest socioeconomic status in society who monopolize the majority of societal resources.
Working Class – the social group positioned between the middle and lower classes who typically work blue-collar occupations and who are economically vulnerable.
the social standing of an individual or family in relation to others based on measures such as education, income and/or occupation
the social group with the highest socioeconomic status in society who monopolize the majority of societal resources
the social group positioned between the upper and working classes who typically work in white-collar occupations and who have a moderate standard of living
the social group positioned between the middle and lower classes who typically work blue-collar occupations and who are economically vulnerable
the social group with the lowest socioeconomic status in society who are marginalized and deprived
social mobility from one generation to the next within the same family
social mobility of an individual within their own lifetime
social mobility of a group of people up or down the social class ladder in response to changes within society